Lascaux is the setting of a complex of caves in southwestern France famous for its prehistoric cave paintings. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne département. They contain some of the most well-known Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 16,000 years old. They primarily consist of realistic images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley.
Lascaux II, a replica of two of the cave halls—the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery—was opened in 1983, 200 meters from the original. Reproductions of other Lascaux artwork can be seen at the Centre of Prehistoric Art at Le Thot, France.
Since the year 2000 the cave has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence of too many visitors. As of 2008, the cave contained black mold which scientists are trying to keep away from the paintings. In January 2008, authorities closed the cave for three months even to scientists and preservationists. A single individual was allowed to enter the cave for 20 minutes once a week to monitor climatic conditions. Now only a few scientific experts are allowed to work inside the cave and just for a few days a month.
The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures. Many are too faint to discern, while others have deteriorated. Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. There are also many geometric figures. Of the animals, horses predominate, with 364 images. There are 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4-5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. Among the most famous images are four huge, black bulls or aurochs in the Hall of the Bulls. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists.
The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, horses and stags are depicted. But it is the four black bulls that are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is long -- the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion.
A painting referred to as "The Crossed Bison" and found in the chamber called the Nave is often held as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs show the ability to use perspective in a manner that wasn't seen again until the 15th century.
Of the non-figurative images, one researcher has speculated that the painted dots are maps of the night sky, since the patterns correlate with various constellations. An alternative hypothesis proprosed by David Lewis-Williams following work with similar art of the San people of Southern Africa is that this type of art is spiritual in nature relating to visions experienced during ritualistic trance-dancing. These trance visions are a function of the human brain and so are independant of geographical location.